Bred to Be a Winner
Angela Estate’s story takes you on world-wind trip by horse
By Jim Gullo
The short version of this story would say that Antony Beck rode into Dundee on his white stallion last month, surveyed his magnificent winery kingdom, found it thriving, made a couple of astonishingly shrewd business moves, and then rode off into a rosy-hued sunset.
But, of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Beck, the owner of Angela Estate Winery in Dundee, did arrive last month for a rare visit from his Lexington, Kentucky, home and thoroughbred farm. And in a sense, he did ride in on a white stallion, in that he wore a cap that bore the name Tapit, the prized white thoroughbred with bloodlines reaching back to Secretariat and Seattle Slew and is stabled at Beck’s Gainesway Farm.
The shrewd business moves are apparent in his relationship with Ken Wright, who makes the Angela wines under exclusive contract with Beck, and the acquisition last year of a vineyard that could be considered one of the finest in the world.
Of Tapit, Beck said, “I got him eight years ago, and he’s been better than I ever could have imagined.” In a soft, South African accent, he quickly added, “Not unlike the Abbott Claim vineyard.”
Address: 1326 N. Highway 99W, Dundee
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Therein lies the story. Beck’s wine-business pedigree reaches all the way back to his native South Africa, where in the early ’80s, his father, Graham Beck, decided to try his hand at making sparkling wine after amassing a fortune in coal mining. The Graham Beck label is now distributed internationally, and since the passing of his father four years ago, Antony and his mother are the proprietors, overseeing business operations for the 300,000-case concern. A Graham Beck sparkling brut rosé, made from South African Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is poured at the Angela Estate tasting room in Dundee as a tribute to the scion of the family.
The Becks are also prominent in thoroughbred breeding and racing in South Africa, and in 1989, Graham Beck acquired the prestigious Gainesway farm outside Lexington and sent son Antony to manage it. There he met his wife, Angela, and five children and several winning racehorses later — including Tonalist, a Tapit offspring who won the Belmont Stakes last year — Beck began to think about starting his own winery that he would name in tribute to his bride.
Oregon’s potential intrigued him, and a chance meeting at a fundraiser with Ken Wright in the late ’90s turned his attention to the Willamette Valley. Wright, who has family in Louisville and spent two years at the University of Kentucky, where he roomed with vineyard manager Allen Holstein, struck up a friendship with Beck that continues to this day. “I told him that if you ever find a promising piece of dirt, to let me know,” Beck recalls. “It took two years to settle on that spot.”
That spot was Savannah Ridge, the hillside between Lafayette and Carlton — roughly between the Anne Amie and Soter wineries — which is home to several prominent vineyards. Wright struck a deal with Beck to buy his undeveloped 34-acre property adjacent to Abbott Claim Vineyard. The Ken Wright Cellars vineyard crew, headed by Mark Gould, was charged with clearing and planting Pinot Noir in 2006 and 2007. The plot was named Angela Estate Vineyard, and Wright was also retained to make wine for the new Angela Estate label. He continues to be the winemaker for the brand’s 4,200-case production of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, and recently renewed his commitment to Beck for another decade.
“The idea was to keep it small and focused,” said Beck. “We’re totally focused on being a high-quality, boutique venture. Oregon is a place with incredible potential and unbelievable opportunity for anyone in the wine business. And, of course, Ken is not only a phenomenal winemaker, but brings incredible integrity to our venture. It is his integrity that enables this to work. We’ll continue this as long as Ken will have me, and until he throws me out.”
It was a great fit for Wright, too. “I believed in Antony and [early Angela Estate investor] Rob Rosenstein, and felt strongly that they were supportive of doing things the right way,” he said. “They appreciate the way we do nutrition-based farming and do everything we can to get full expression of a site.”
To that end, Angela Estate makes only intensely focused, single-vineyard Pinot. No rosés, no Chardonnay, no blends, no sourcing fruit from other vineyards. “The Willamette Valley is synonymous with fine Pinot Noir,” shrugs Beck. “We’ll continue to focus on that varietal.”
The Angela Estate brand remained small and relatively underground until a decision was made in 2012 to ramp up business. Jessica Endsworth, a Portland-based sommelier and marketing and sales rep, was recruited to run the business, and last March, after looking at spaces in Carlton and Dundee, the brand opened its first tasting room in the Dundee West End complex alongside the Inn at Red Hills. The space was decorated by Angela Beck and features her line of textile products as well as photos of Gainesway farm and its stallions, including the magnificent Tapit.
Beck wasn’t finished with Oregon in general or Savannah Ridge in particular. The Angela Estate holdings increased last year when Beck finalized another deal with Ken Wright to purchase the adjacent Abbott Claim Vineyard, a 16-acre site that has been the source of some of Wright’s highest-scoring wines to date — 97 points were awarded by Wine Enthusiast to the 2012 Ken Wright Abbott Claim Pinot Noir. Recalling that a 2009 Abbott Claim was one of the finest wines he had ever tasted, Beck jumped at the chance to own the vineyard. “I said, ‘Yes, please,’” he recalls of the initial conversation to acquire Abbott Claim. “It’s a truly unique and incredible vineyard.”
For Wright, selling the vineyard he cleared and planted in 2001 — but retaining rights for enough fruit to make a few hundred cases of Abbott Claim — will allow him to finance an urgently needed expansion in winemaking space. Neither Beck nor Wright would reveal the dollar amount of the deal, but on a per-acre basis, it was “at the top of the market,” as Wright put it. “And it should be,” he quickly added. “It’s a beautiful vineyard in perfect health and in full maturity.”
Beck’s business instincts did not fail him with the purchase. This month the Ken Wright Abbott Claim Pinot Noir is expected to claim a major award from Wine Enthusiast Magazine (details were not available at press time), and since Wright’s bottling is all but sold out, the only place to buy wine made from Abbott Claim fruit, by Ken Wright no less, will be Angela Estate.
Not bad for a coal miner’s son from South Africa. Hats off to Antony Beck…and the horse he rode in on.
McMinnville freelance writer and author Jim Gullo is working on a novel about the Marx Brothers.